July 28, 2008

Mon Oncle Antoine


Reviewer: Maria Komodore
Rating (out of 5): ****

There's a palpably thick layer of sadness and melancholy that envelops Canadian filmmaker Claude Jutra's Mon Oncle Antoine (1971). A lot of it has to do with the setting; it's Christmas Eve in a small asbestos-mining community in 1940s Quebec, nature is dressed in white, and the workers gather in the town's general store to celebrate the frozen and endless winter in an alcoholic stupor. But adding to the melancholy is the knowledge that, at the untimely age of fifty-six, Jutra decided to take his own life after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

Nonetheless, as the case often is with films that feature kid protagonists (some obvious exceptions do pop to mind), Mon Oncle Antoine is also gentle, charming, and touching. Just like its famous and beloved influence The 400 Blows (1959, François Truffaut), Jutra's semi-autobiographical film plunges into pre-adolescent disillusionment and renders a tender portrait of a youngster's inevitable and irrevocable fall from grace; a fall tightly related to the harsh conditions rural Québec's working class endured under the regime of conservative politician and Union-Nationale party leader Maurice Duplessis, which ultimately led to the province's Quiet Revolution.

Young actor Jacques Gagnon plays Benoit, who lives with his uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe), his aunt Cecile (Olivette Thibault), and Carmen (Lyne Champagne), a girl his own age whom his benefactors have also taken under their wings. Intoxicated by the celebratory atmosphere of the day, Benoit flirts with Carmen, peeks at a woman trying on a corset, and lets his curiosity run free. Such is his incentive when he volunteers to accompany his uncle (who's also an undertaker) in a trip to a nearby town where a boy has prematurely died. Riding next to Antoine on a horse sledge in the snowy landscape Benoit comes face to face with the hard realities of life; the realization that death, disappointment, and dissatisfaction can be part of it shocks him.

Voted Best Canadian Film twice in polls by film journal Sight and Sound, Mon Oncle Antoine is not generally widely known by the viewing public, but thanks to this new Criterion DVD (the newly remastered print is a vast improvement over the previous version), perhaps that will change.

The two-disc set is loaded with extras, including: On-Screen: "Mon oncle Antoine," a 2007 documentary tracing the making and history of the film; Claude Jutra: An Unfinished Story, a 2002 documentary by Paule Baillargeon, featuring interviews with Brault, director Bernardo Bertolucci, and actors Geneviève Bujold and Saul Rubinek; and "Chairy Tale," a 1957 experimental short codirected by Jutra and Norman McLaren.

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Posted by cphillips at July 28, 2008 10:44 AM
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